By Bianca Silva
Few women captivated the 1800’s with great ambition and cleverness like Mary Ellen Pleasant. According to various sources, she was born a slave on a plantation in Georgia to a Vodou priestess from the Caribbean and the youngest son of Virginia governor James Pleasant. As a little girl, Mary Ellen was sent to work as an indentured servant in Nantucket.
Being a light-skinned black woman, she would often pass as white to avoid being captured and put back into slavery. In 1852, she moved to San Francisco and became one of the wealthiest people in California as she continued to pass as a white woman.
During her lifetime, she amassed a multi-million dollar fortune from the $45,000 in gold she invested from the estate of her first husband, James Smith. Smith was a wealthy plantation owner who also passed off as white. As a real estate innovator, she built boarding houses for high society men and managed to infiltrate the inner circles of prominent people and later used the knowledge to develop more businesses.
Marjorie Charlot, a librarian of Haitian descent and author of Did you know? – Over One Hundred Facts about Haiti and her Children, explains the significance of Pleasant’s actions as a marginalized person in the 19th century.
“She did things that women her gender were not known to be doing,” she says. “She ran businesses, she had money of her own, she traveled. She took a role on the Underground Railroad. She was not one of those people who became famous and wealthy and forgot where she came from.”
Outside of the white community, Pleasant was an abolitionist who made her biracial identity known to the black community. Known as the “Black City Hall,” she served as a link to the Underground Railroad by helping slaves escape as far north as Canada, as well as, providing employment to freed slaves in both her businesses and in high society homes in California.
She also fought for the desegregation of the transit system in court where blacks were granted the right to ride on the streetcars without being thrown off and was said to have helped friend and abolitionist John Brown financially in his failed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry.
But what many, specifically within the Haitian community may not be aware is that Pleasant is of Haitian heritage. According to one of her memoirs, her mother was of Haitian descent and her grandmother was a Vodou priestess from Haiti.
In 1865, Pleasant began to publicly identify as black and was villainized. She was called a “mammy,” a term meant to put her in her place and was accused of using Vodou to achieve her wealthy status.
“They needed something to make her appear to be a negative person,” Charlot says. “‘What’s the best way?’ Brand her a Vodou person, something people don’t understand, things people are afraid of.”
However, the Vodou aspect doesn’t summarize her Haitian heritage. For Charlot, Pleasant’s roots transcends the backlash she faced for being herself.
“There are women that fought just as well as the men in the [Haitian] revolution and she carried that spirit with her,” she says. “I think she belongs to all black communities; not just Haitian but also to blacks because she also embodied the spirit of the ancestors in Africa. Her as a businesswoman is a tradition that goes back to ancient Africa. Women were traders in Africa. In fact, there were many that started the gold trade in Africa. They were traders, they controlled the market. Her activities were not something new to the African culture.”
Charlot mentions how important it is for the Haitian-American community to take pride in the figures that have helped shaped the United States at a time when they were dehumanized, and notes that their history in America did not begin in the 1960s and 1970s when Haitians emigrated to the U.S. in large numbers to escape political unrest under the dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
“I think it’s very important that Haitians in this country are aware that our contributions in this country goes from the very beginning of this country,” she says. “In fact, the first independent groups of blacks to lead this country were actually from the island of Hispaniola.”